Behaviour & Emotions

The art of negotiation: Setting boundaries with teens

Teens and boundaries

Setting boundaries is a challenging – but necessary – part of parenting kids of all ages. Expectations and high standards are good things to have with both our younger children and our teenagers. But when it comes to guiding teens, our approach is a little different.

Throughout the teenage years, parental control gradually becomes less and more autonomy is extended to our young people. The eventual goal is that our teens will leave home and be able to make safe and sensible decisions for themselves, so we start working towards this in a gradual way.

In terms of setting boundaries, we recommend moving into a more co-operative style of negotiation. It is honouring to our young people – they’ve got a good head on their shoulders, they understand our values by now, and their feelings matter too.

It is honouring to our young people – they’ve got a good head on their shoulders.

So, how do we actually do this? First up, keep the word ‘negotiate’ front of mind. Establishing boundaries is not about issuing a decree. Rather, it’s about setting aside some time to say: “Hey, such and such is not working – let’s discuss this.”

Three steps to effective negotiations are:

  1. Hear their perspective
  2. Share your perspective
  3. Work out a win/win solution

Let’s see what this might sound like in practice…

Scenario 1: Teen gaming too much

You've noticed a ‘creep upwards’ in how much time your young teenage son spends gaming. You might say, “Hey Olly, I see you're finding it tough to stick to the gaming time limit we've set. As you know, I have been clear that I don’t want you to have more than 30 minutes a day during the week. Can you talk to me about this? What’s going on for you?”

Step 1: Hear their perspective first

Your teen may shrug, and say, “It’s a stupid time limit, and everyone else is allowed to game all afternoon.”

Okay, deep breath. This is a discussion, so we don’t want to get defensive. We can expect that this topic will be a bit tense and emotional. Emotion is not the enemy and it makes sense in this situation. Our first priority is to attend to Olly’s feelings, so that we can get back to discussing the issue from a place of connection.

Show that you’re listening reflectively – “You feel like everyone else is allowed to game longer than you... I am guessing that it feels unfair that we are asking you to get off your screen after 30 mins?”

He might clarify – “It’s lame if I have already started a game and I need to leave right in the middle before it’s finished.”

We want to validate our teen’s emotions and empathise with their experience. We might say, “Oh this makes sense that you don’t want to leave halfway through a game” or “Do your mates get annoyed if you leave before the game is finished?” or “I am wondering if it might feel embarrassing to say your parents are making you leave midway through?”

Good negotiators are good LISTENERS.

Step 2: Share your perspective

After you have thoroughly heard your teen’s perspective, explain the reasons for your boundary. Make sure that your teen is given a decent explanation - they have a great brain and deserve to know your reasons.(Note: It is super helpful to have our reasons clear in our own head in advance!)

Some thoughts might be:

  • “Research tells us that varied time use is important for well-being.” (

  • “Your mum and I have noticed that you really struggle to be in a good mood after an extended time gaming. I know it can be hard to see yourself, but we really care about your well-being, and we need there to be limits on your gaming”.

  • “You need to have time for fitness/ exercise, shooting hoops and moving your body every day”.

  • “This family is a team, so you need to help cook dinner sometimes.”

  • “I miss you! You need to hang out with your family.”

Step 3: Work out a win/win solution

You learn that one round of the game takes 20 minutes. Perhaps you validate that yes - it’s lame to ditch your mates halfway through. Ask him for ideas around how you can arrive at a solution that works for you both. Perhaps you would be happy to discuss a different arrangement of how the weekly gaming limit gets divided up (but still the same total time limit over the week). It's great if your teen can generate some options to contribute to the discussion.

There can be flexibility and negotiation to allow your teen to have some ‘buy-in,’ but as a parent, you need to feel happy with the boundary or limit that is arrived at.

Scenario 2: Freaky Halloween plan

Step 1: Hear their perspective

“Mate, are you guys really planning to go to Spookers Maze? What are your thoughts/ feelings about this?"

Step 2: Share your perspective

“Have you actually had a look online at how freaky that place is? I know that you're actually quite sensitive, and I know that until very recently, you couldn’t really cope with watching the robbers in ‘Home Alone’…"

Step 3: Work out a win/win or make a plan

“I am not sure this is a wise choice for you? What do you think?”

See how in this example the parent is opening up the discussion. What we don’t want to do (especially with teens) is just say “Absolutely not” without talking about it in a co-operative way first. Here, the parent has not jumped down the teen’s throat, but is opening up a discussion.

What we don’t want to do (especially with teens) is just say “Absolutely not” without talking about it in a co-operative way first.

Sometimes we might let our teen make a decision themselves – so long as all involved can live with the consequences. Other times we won't be able to allow that much autonomy, because if the situation in question goes wrong, the consequences are too serious. First and foremost, it’s our job to keep our kids safe. A party invite that’s just not working for you (like the scenario below taken from our Toolbox Teenage Years course) is a good example of safety first. We may not reach a win/win in a situation like this, but the conversation still has a co-operative tone.

Course teenage

Toolbox Teenage Years

Our comprehensive guide to parenting teenagers, this six-week course will equip with you tools, insights and greater confidence. Available online or in-person.

Find out more

Scenario 3: New Year party negotiation

Your teenager wants to go to away to celebrate New Year’s with their mates.

You explore your teen’s need – what is this desire to go all about? (The trip sounds so fun, exciting, independent, they want to be part of the group). You empathise and tell them it makes sense that they want these things. You explain your position – your need is to know that they are safe. You ask them to explain to you their plan for how they will keep safe (there might be particular aspects of the trip that you need more details about). They come back with an inadequate sounding plan.

You explain to them that this plan does not satisfy your need to keep them safe, so you will not be giving your permission this time.

Encourage them to come up with a better plan so that you can say yes. If they cannot, you keep to your word and you don't give your permission for them to go away with their mates this year. Keep empathising with them that it feels hard to be missing out on the New Year’s gathering. Ask them if there is another plan that can meet the needs of both of you.

Maintaining boundaries in this way won't always feel great, but it is not punitive. You can be genuinely sad with your teenager that the plan wasn’t a good enough one for them to be given permission to go join in. You can hold out hope that another plan would elicit a different answer from you.

You are trying your best to stay connected to your teenager's emotional world, even though they might be mad at you for a while.

Rules with reasons

Boundaries get pushed and even crossed, it happens. But it happens far less often if we are sharing the reasons for our rules, and if we are negotiating the rules with our teenager and getting their ‘buy in’. Keep in mind that our influence comes from the strength of our relationship. It's not always easy and maintaining connection and relationship with our teens takes effort and patience (loads of patience!). But it’s absolutely worth it.


Kristin Ward

Kristin Ward manages the Family Coaching team and enjoys working with tricky dynamics in families. She loves supporting parents to see how they can be on the same team as their kids, no matter what challenging behaviour they are facing. A mum-of-three, Kristin is passionate about seeing whānau thrive and strongly believes there is lots parents can do to build close and warm relationships with their children.

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